The First Sunday after Michaelmas (Trinity 19) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who went to the cross bearing our sin and guilt, and who now declares us innocent of all wrongdoing through His Word of absolution, dear fellow redeemed:
Sometimes our mistakes leave marks that are visible to others. A few years ago, an NFL player was playing with fireworks. One of them went off in his hand and caused extensive damage to his fingers. His injury is a constant reminder to himself and others of the mistake he made. But most of our mistakes, most of our sins, do not leave visible marks. Most of the time, we are able to cover up our sins, and no one ever knows about them but ourselves.
And as long as no one ever finds out, it’s like the sin never actually happened, right? This is what we tell ourselves. It starts when we see something we want. We make sure no one else is around. We check over our shoulders and check again. Then we indulge ourselves. The pattern is the same whether it is a child sneaking cookies, someone looking at explicit content on his smartphone, or an employee stealing things at work. “As long as I don’t get caught, then everything is okay.”
But of course everything is not okay. We might have been able to hide our sin from others, but we can’t hide it from ourselves. We see it. It plays over and over again in our mind. We wish we hadn’t done it, but we can’t take it back. We want to come clean, but we can’t bear the thought of other people knowing our deep flaws. How do we deal with these invisible scars? How do we deal with the guilt of our own sins? Today’s Gospel reading shows us the way forward.
We hear about a paralyzed man. We’re not told how he got that way. It could have been an accident that was totally out of his control. Or maybe it was because of reckless behavior. Whatever the cause, this young man had some dedicated friends. Four friends carried him on a bed to the house where Jesus was preaching, but they could not make their way inside. The crowd was too large. So they climbed up on the roof and removed enough of the clay roof tiles, so they could lower the paralyzed man before Jesus.
Imagine the scene: Jesus is preaching, and everyone’s attention is fixed on Him. Then there are footsteps above on the roof. Then pieces of dust and dirt and clay start showering down on people’s heads. Everyone looks up, probably Jesus too. Then blue sky, the room gets brighter, and heads peer down from a hole in the ceiling. Then a large object fills the space and is lowered down through the opening. What a scene!
Now put yourself in the place of the paralyzed man. You’re up pretty high. There’s nothing you can do but trust your friends to hang on and not drop you. You inch lower and lower, looking to see past the edge of your bed at the people in the room. And then Jesus comes in view. What is the look on His face? Is it irritation? Surprise? Anger? No, the look on His face is warm concern; it’s compassion.
What would you say to Jesus if you had His attention like this, looking Him right in the eye? What would you say if it were just the two of you with no one else around? We have rehearsed this before. When the troubles in our lives keep getting worse and nothing is going the way it should, we want to ask Him why. Doesn’t He see? Doesn’t He care? Why doesn’t He help? We wonder why He doesn’t take away our pain, make everything better. We think of all the things we would say to Him face-to-face if only we had the chance.
Perhaps it was the same for the paralyzed man. Maybe he wondered why he should have to suffer like this. Why him and not everyone else around him? But when the opportunity finally arrived, he said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. Jesus knew. He knew the hardships of this young man. He knew the deep concern of those who brought him. He knew what brought them to Him. “[W]hen Jesus saw their faith—the faith of the friends and of the man set before Him—“He said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.’”
Is that what the man needed the most? It seems like what he needed most was physical healing. He needed to be able to walk again, so he would no longer be such a burden on his friends. But that was not his greatest need. We don’t know the young man’s history. We don’t know what troubles he had faced, what anguish he had felt, what guilt weighed down on him. If we knew about his past, maybe we would think he deserved his paralysis. Maybe we would think he should have neither spiritual nor physical relief.
But the Lord is ever merciful and gracious. He constantly gives the opposite of what is deserved. The times that we get angry with Jesus or question Him are the times that we think He is failing us. He is not giving us what we believe we deserve. That is dangerous territory. We are not entitled to anything from God. We don’t deserve anything good from Him. We deserve to be punished for our sins. We deserve eternal damnation.
But that is not what Jesus gives us. He lets us bring all our grievances to Him, and then He meets us not with anger or with annoyance. He meets us with absolution. He comes to us with grace. “Take heart, My child,” He says; “your sins are forgiven.” What sins of the paralyzed man did He forgive? The sins that only He could see, sins that we know nothing about. And what sins of yours does He forgive? Only the ones He can see.
Which sins are these? We ask that question in our Catechism. The answer is the sins that we commit in every area of our lives—the sins we commit as fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, employers and employees; the sins of our disobedience, dishonesty, laziness; the sins of unkind speech and hurtful action; sins of neglect, wastefulness, and so on.
Many of these sins only you know about. Only you know the depth of your sinfulness, the darkness that clouds your love for God and neighbor. Only you know the extent of your selfishness, your pride, and your judgmental attitude toward others. But today’s reading shows that Another knows.
When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins, the scribes and Pharisees thought to themselves, “This man is blaspheming! Only God can forgive sins, and this man is not God!” They did not say this out loud. No one could have known what was in their hearts, no one except Jesus. “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’”
Just as He could see faith in the paralyzed man and his friends, so He could see sin and unbelief in the scribes and Pharisees. Nothing is hidden from Him. “Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD” (Jer. 23:24). The Lord sees. He sees all. That is terrifying. It means He knows all the sins that we have carefully tried to hide from others.
But this is also comforting. Because the Lord knows all my wrongs, I don’t have to try to hide them. I don’t have to carry my burden of guilt. I can own up to them, admit them. I can hand them over to Him. That’s exactly what we do when we confess our sins. We pull them out in the open. We bring them into the light. And we leave them there for Jesus to deal with.
And Jesus says, “I’ll gladly take them. I will take them away.” But He doesn’t take them somewhere and bury them where they might be found again and brought against us. He took your sins to Himself, and He erased them and all the evidence of them. The trail of evidence leading to your sinfulness goes to the cross, and it stops there. The evidence never points to you, because Jesus blotted out all evidence of your sinning with His holy blood.
On the cross, Jesus suffered only for the sins of yours that He knew about, only for the ones He could see. And He saw them all. He suffered and died for the sins you have never told another soul about. He suffered and died for the sins you have convinced yourself are unforgiveable. He forgives them. He paid for those sins.
When He looks at you, He does not see your sins anymore. He sees His dear child. He does not ask for anything. He does not seek payment or proof that you know how badly you messed up. He looks at you with mercy and compassion and says, “Your sins are forgiven! Rise up and go your way.”
This is the message that He has sent me, your pastor, to proclaim. The crowds were right to “[glorify] God, who had given such authority to men,” because He has. He has given His church the authority to forgive sins, and that forgiveness is announced publicly by your pastor. I have been around you long enough to see some of your sins, just as you have seen some of mine. But when I or the vicar speak the absolution, we speak the forgiveness of all sin, even the sins nobody else knows about.
Jesus knows your sins even better than you do, because He suffered in anguish paying for each and every one on the cross. The absolution that you hear today is a constant pointing to His sacrifice. And if His absolution does not settle the question in your mind about whether or not He forgives your sin, He also invites you to His table. There He places His own holy body and blood in your mouth, and He tells you what that faithful eating and drinking is for—“for the remission of your sins.”
You see your sins, but Jesus does not see them anymore. He forgives them.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)
The Fourth Sunday in Advent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 1:19-28
In Christ Jesus, who freely gives us everything we need for this life and for the life to come, dear fellow redeemed:
The internet gives anyone the ability to connect with a worldwide audience. There are many stories about people who went from total unknowns to walking the red carpet, because they found something to do that others wanted to follow. Imagine if that happened to you. Let’s say you shared something online, maybe a joke or a creative idea or good advice. You thought your friends would appreciate it, but you didn’t expect it to go any further than that. Then others you had never met started reacting to it and sharing it. Before long it had been shared 100 times, then 1,000 times, then 10,000.
How would that make you feel? After getting past the shock, you might start to think about how you could produce more of the same. Receiving such praise would be quite an emotional high, quite an encouragement. It’s nice to be liked. It’s nice to have others validate that there is something special about you, and that you have got a lot to offer. But there are pitfalls here, pitfalls like pride and arrogance. You know what it’s like when an acquaintance or friend gets a little taste of success and then acts like you don’t exist anymore. But when they come back down to earth, then they want to talk to you again.
It’s hard to know how we would react to sudden fame. We hope that we would come away looking like John the Baptizer does in today’s text. John’s star had risen quickly. Once he started preaching his bold message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mat. 3:2), the people started gathering. The crowd got bigger and bigger until the evangelist Matthew could report that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mat. 3:5-6).
How many baptisms did John do? Do you suppose he kept count? His ministry in the wilderness was so popular that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, came to the Jordan River to be baptized (v. 7). That would be enough to go to anyone’s head. John could look around the crowd and see people hanging on his every word. There were the religious leaders deep in thought. There were the armor-clad soldiers with their heads bowed, listening intently. There were the rich and famous nodding approvingly. There were the young ladies batting their eyelashes and flashing warm smiles.
“Oh, what a great preacher I am! Everyone wants to be connected to me!” Is that what John thought? We cannot say what John was thinking. He was a sinner, so it’s hard to imagine that no pride entered his heart. But what he said was all humility. Today’s text shows us the exchange between John and a group of priests and Levites from Jerusalem. These religious leaders came with a simple enough question for John: “Who are you?” But behind the question was the suggestion that he might be the Christ. Probably many in the crowd were wondering the same thing.
Just think what an opportunity this could have been for John. If he let the people imagine he was the Christ, he could have asked anything from them: money, privileges, power. He could have had them eating out of his hand. Instead he confessed: “I am not the Christ.” Well then, was he Elijah come from heaven, that great Old Testament prophet? “I am not,” he said. Was he the Prophet whose coming was foretold by Moses? “No,” he answered.
Claiming any of those titles would have increased his popularity among the people. But John resisted this temptation. “I am nothing,” he said. “I am nothing but a voice.” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” When Jesus was revealed as the Messiah and some of John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus, John was not jealous. He knew his purpose was to prepare the way for the Savior. It was not to be in the spotlight. “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30), said John.
To leave no room for misunderstanding, the Gospel writer emphatically underscores John’s faithful testimony about Jesus. He wrote that John “confessed, and did not deny, but confessed.” Now often we think of confession in terms of “going to confession,” or admitting our sins. But the word in the Greek language is more general. It means “to speak the same word” or “to speak in agreement.” When we confess our sins, we speak in agreement with what God’s law says about our sinful condition and our wrongs. When we confess the truth, we speak in agreement with what God has promised and fulfilled.
John confessed the truth about himself and about the Savior. “I am not the Christ,” he said. “[B]ut among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “If you think I’m special,” said John, “wait till you see the coming One! I’m not even worthy to touch His feet and loosen the strap on His sandal!”
John could not properly confess Christ without also confessing something about himself. He could not point out Christ’s holiness without admitting his own unworthiness. He could not shine the light on Jesus without stepping back in the shadows. To make himself out to be more would have been to steal glory from the incarnate Son of God.
But what John did does not come naturally to us. It does not come naturally to deflect praise away from ourselves. We like the spotlight on us, especially when we have accomplished something impressive. We like to be recognized for our good deeds and honored for our success. We like to hear people say, “We could never get along without you!” “You make everything better!” “Nobody could do as well as you have!” “We need more people like you!”
Now it certainly isn’t wrong to be recognized for doing good things. It is important for parents and teachers and employers to build up and congratulate those under their authority. And if you are on the receiving end of praise, it is appropriate to receive it graciously and be grateful for it. But the devil is waiting in the wings. When you are praised, he wants you to think that you are just getting what you deserve. You earned it. You are so very talented. You really are better than others. “Soak it up!” he says. “Command the stage! This is your moment! Pat yourself on your back and give yourself a round of applause!”
That’s the temptation: to take the glory for yourself that belongs to God alone. After all, who is it that gave you your body and soul, eyes, ears and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still preserves them (Third Article)? Every good thing you possess and every good thing you are able to do can be traced back to God’s work for you, in you, and through you. That’s why John said he was only a “voice.” Even the words that he spoke were God’s words and not his own.
This is why we must “confess, and not deny, but confess,” that we are nothing on our own. Apart from God, we can produce nothing that matters, nothing that will last. Even those who think they have “made it” in this life eventually realize that their fame or power or riches are only temporary. Soon they are going to die, and then they will be forgotten.
Jesus came to save you from all that emptiness and hopelessness. He came to free you from the pressure of having to prove that you are valuable, that your life has a purpose. He came to free you from the burden of a million missed opportunities, a life of regret for not making it big. He came to free you from the temptation of trampling others to try to get to the top.
Everything that you have failed to be, Jesus is for you. He is your goodness. He is your success. He is your life of perfect decisions and no regrets. You are not worthy to loosen His sandal strap, and yet He came down to earth to serve you. He came to atone for your sins of arrogance and pride, for your failure to give Him the glory and the praise for all the good you have and do.
His love for you brought Him down to earth. Sometimes like John, He drew big crowds, but that isn’t why He came. He did not care about earthly popularity. He cared about your soul and the soul of every sinner. He came to offer Himself in your place. He came to endure God’s wrath for your sin and suffer the torments of hell, so you wouldn’t have to. He came to win your forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus’ greatness was in His sacrifice. His glory was in His humility. We honor Him by living our life in the same way. We sacrifice our own goals and ambitions for the good of those around us, and we humbly serve with no expectation of reward. We need no reward beyond what we already have by faith in Him.
Like John, we at all times keep our focus on Jesus. We live for Him. We hope in Him. If we are praised, we give Him the glory. As John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Joh. 3:30). It isn’t about what we might make of ourselves, but what Jesus has done for us. We Confess Him, Only and Always. And He promises this: “[E]veryone who acknowledges [or confesses] me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luk. 12:8).
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture from “The Preaching of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1565)
The Baptism of Jesus – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 3:13-17
In Christ Jesus, who did not come “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (Joh. 3:17), dear fellow redeemed:
When John the Baptizer started preaching in the wilderness of Judea, the prominent theme of his preaching and teaching was repentance. God sent him to be a voice waking people up from their spiritual slumber. John didn’t hold back. He didn’t care what sort of standing a person had, or what might happen if he pointed out their sin. When he saw a number of the Jewish religious leaders coming to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers” (Mat. 3:7). He told them to “[b]ear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8). If they would not, they would be “cut down and thrown into the fire (v. 10).
And if you think I’m tough, he said, just wait till you meet the One who comes after me, “whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12). What sort of man did the people expect would follow John? Whatever they imagined, John’s message made them all the more ready to humble themselves and acknowledge their sins.
When the people thought about the coming Messiah, perhaps they thought about the times God made His presence known to the people of Israel. They may have imagined the descent of the LORD upon Mount Sinai when He delivered His law to Moses. The whole mountain was wrapped in smoke as though coming from a great furnace. The mountain shuddered, and when Moses spoke, God answered in thunder (Exo. 19:18-19). Is this how it would be with the One who followed John? Or would He come in a thick cloud like the one that filled the holy place of the tabernacle and temple (Exo. 40:34-38, Lev. 16:2,30)?
While the people waited with nervous anticipation and fear, Jesus was quietly going about His business in Nazareth. We know nothing about His life from His youth until the start of His public work except for the words of St. Luke: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men” (2:52). So He was intelligent and well thought of in His community. But no one would have matched Him with John’s description of the Coming One. Would that change with His official anointing?
His anointing as the Christ is recorded for us in today’s text. He came where John was by the Jordan River to be baptized by him. John did not realize yet that Jesus was the Christ, but he knew that Jesus was a righteous man. He said, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” Jesus’ response shows that He had not come to condemn everyone. He came “to fulfill all righteousness.” This required Him to be baptized, to join the company of sinners who also entered the waters.
But He was not baptized to wash away His sin. He had no sin of His own to wash away! He was baptized for all humanity, in every sinner’s place. He offered Himself as their Substitute, taking their sins upon Himself, sins that He would pay for with His life at Calvary. The significance of this moment was clear by what happened next. Jesus came out of the water, and “the heavens were opened to Him.” Then the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove and rested upon Him, and a voice came from above, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now John knew. This was the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior promised for thousands of years. “I myself did not know him,” John said, “but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (Joh. 1:33). So the Coming One had come. But He did not come exactly as expected.
God the Son did not descend from heaven with fire and smoke and other terrifying displays of power. He came humbly, looking just like other men. The other Persons of the Trinity revealed themselves in humble ways too. God the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a small dove. And God the Father spoke from heaven clearly but gently and with a message of love. In other words, the Triune God revealed Himself at the Jordan River not with terrifying displays of glory and might, but with grace.
This looks so different than the scene at Mount Sinai, but then the purpose of God’s appearance was different at each place. At Mount Sinai, God was giving the people His law. The law should provoke fear in the hearts of sinners. If they do not do God’s will, they must answer for their transgressions. This was emphasized by all the burning, smoking, and thundering on the mountaintop. This was a God who should not be taken lightly, and who expected the people to obey Him.
What happened at the Jordan River was not a display of God’s wrath, as those who heard John might have expected. Jesus’ baptism was a display of the Gospel, of God’s love for humankind by sending them a Savior. Jesus had come to give Himself in the place of sinners and to fulfill all righteousness for them, so they would not have to face the holy wrath of God.
What we see at Jesus’ baptism is how it is for our baptisms too. There are some who would turn baptism into a law event. They say that baptism is about what we do for God. They think this is where we must fully dedicate ourselves to Him and promise to live a holy life. It’s no wonder that these do not find comfort in their baptism. They know they have not lived up to their promise. They know they lack the righteousness that God requires.
But baptism is not a law event, it is a Gospel event. It is where God commits Himself to us. It is where He makes promises that are as sure and unchanging as He is. It is where He bestows His forgiveness on us and covers us with His righteousness. There are many beautiful passages in Scripture that underscore this.
Listen to Titus 3:5-7 and ask yourself who is doing the action: is it us, or is it God? “[A]ccording to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” This says that God saved us by His mercy, washed us in baptism, and applied Christ’s perfect work to us. We are now justified—declared innocent—by His grace and are counted as heirs of God.
Romans 6:4 explains how baptism marks the drowning of our sinful nature and the awakening of faith. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Galatians 3:27 tells us that we look much different in God’s sight after our baptism than we did before. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
These and many other passages teach us that In Baptism, God Comes Down with Grace. We don’t go to Him to give Him something He needs. He comes down to us to give us the blessings that we couldn’t live without. It doesn’t seem possible that baptism would have such significance. It looks so simple. What good can a couple handfuls of water and one short sentence do? But Jesus’ baptism probably didn’t look very impressive either. We learn about its significance by the subsequent opening of heaven, the Holy Spirit’s descent, and the voice of the Father.
The Triune God does not show His presence at our baptisms, but He promises that He is here. It is His Word and ultimately His water that are used in baptism. He is the One who gives parents and guardians the will to bring their children to baptism, and He is the One who calls pastors to administer baptism. The Lord wants people to be baptized, and He does not fail to be present with His gifts.
Because His power and promise are what drive baptism, it only needs to happen once for each individual. If baptism were simply an expression of our commitment to God, we would need to be baptized many times, because our commitment toward Him is constantly in flux. But because baptism is a sacrament from God through which He makes a commitment to us, it is only needed one time.
We are baptized once only, but we return to those cleansing waters of baptism every time we repent of sin and trust in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus. In confession, the penitent sinner is really asking God, “Do You still love me? Do the promises You made at my baptism still stand?” And the absolution is God’s reply, “Yes, the work of My Son to save you is finished. Through His blood your sins are forgiven, and His righteousness is yours by faith. I have not and will not change My mind about you; you are My baptized child.”
The absolution is God’s assurance that heaven remains open to all who trust in Him. Heaven was opened to you at your baptism just as it was opened to Jesus at His baptism. From heaven, the Father continues to speak His gracious Word, the Son continues to apply His forgiveness and righteousness to you, and the Holy Spirit continues to fill you with His comfort and peace.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is portion of 1895 painting by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior)
The First Sunday after Michaelmas – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 9:1-8
In Christ Jesus, who came as the Physician for the spiritually sick (Mt. 9:12), dear fellow redeemed:
The account of the healing of the paralytic is recorded in three of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Both Mark and Luke offer the interesting detail that when the friends of the paralytic could not get into the house where Jesus was teaching, they opened up a hole in the roof. Then they let down their friend on his bed before Jesus. This would have been something to witness! If you were in the house, you would have wondered what was going on when pieces of the roof rained down, beams of light cut into the room, and faces peered down from above.
As striking as this experience must have been, Matthew says nothing about it. All he says is that some people brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. This shows us that how the paralytic was brought to Jesus is not the most important detail. The most important details are what happened when he was set before Jesus.
Now what was this young man’s most pressing need? No one could fail to see the sad condition he was in. He was paralyzed. He could not walk. Perhaps he could not even move his arms. The friends of this person went to the great trouble of hoisting him up on the roof and lowering him down before Jesus. What were they expecting Jesus to do? Jesus recognized the young man’s most pressing need. “Take heart, My son” He said; “your sins are forgiven.”
If you were in the position of the paralyzed man, would you have been disappointed about what Jesus said? Would you have been perplexed that Jesus seemed to ignore your paralysis? But the paralyzed man did not protest. Maybe his paralysis was not what troubled him the most.
Can you imagine a scenario in which no physical pain is worse than the spiritual turmoil of your heart and soul? What if this man struggled with serious depression and had lost the will to live? What if he had become paralyzed by doing something foolish, and he carried a great burden of guilt for his actions? What if he worried that God was punishing him for past sins by making him paralyzed? If any of these were true, he would have seen his paralysis as a symptom of a much deeper problem, a problem which seemed to have no solution.
But then Jesus spoke. His words brought calm to the inner sea of turmoil. It cast beams of healing light into the paralytic’s troubled heart. He was not yet able to rise from his bed, but his spirit was lifted up. He was comforted. How do we know Jesus’ Word had this effect? There was no change that could be observed in the paralytic, unless a once troubled countenance now showed signs of relief and peacefulness. The scribes, for their part, denied that the young man’s sins had been forgiven. They said within themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mk. 2:7).
Their assumption was that Jesus was not God. That assumption was about to be challenged. Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to them, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” What is the answer? You and I can easily say both things, but we do not have the power to make either of them happen. Jesus has the power to do both, and He proved the power to give spiritual healing by giving physical healing.
As proof “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” Now if the man could not stand up, what would it mean? That his sins were not forgiven. But the second miracle was proof of the first. He did get up. His sins were forgiven. And all because of Jesus’ powerful Word.
We said earlier that Matthew did not include the detail of how the paralyzed man was brought before Jesus. But Matthew did include a detail that Mark and Luke did not. At the end of this account, Matthew wrote that the crowds “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” That is an interesting conclusion for the crowd to arrive at. Jesus proving that He could forgive sins made the crowd marvel that God “had given such authority to men.”
Until Jesus’ coming, there had never been a human being who could forgive sins. People could set broken bones and treat illnesses. They could help the poor and console the grieving. But of and by themselves they had no answer for spiritual distress. And they had no answer for “the wages of sin,” which is death (Rom. 6:23). But now here was a flesh-and-blood man, Jesus, who had an answer not only for physical ills, but for spiritual ones. He had the authority to forgive sins.
Now if you are authorized to do something, you wouldn’t say the power is yours. Authority is granted to you by someone else. So if you are given the password to a company account, you receive it from someone above you. You are entrusted with what is theirs. Any authority we have in our vocations comes in this way. Even the authority parents have over their children is not something they produce by themselves. They are given authority. And who gives it? In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1).
This is how it works also with the authority to forgive sins. After His resurrection, Jesus declared to His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn. 20:21,22-23). The authority Jesus received from His Father, He passed on to His disciples. He emphasized the same thing shortly before His ascension into heaven. He told them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore” (Mt. 28:18-19).
Jesus makes it clear that the authority to forgive sins—something only God can do—is now put into the mouths of His disciples to declare. And that is something to wonder about! How could Jesus give something so sacred, so precious, so powerful as the authority to forgive sins to sinners? But that is what He does. Each of you as children of God has been given this authority. When your brother or sister in Christ sins against you and repents of the sin, you can say to them, “I forgive you, and God forgives you.” You can still forgive them even if they are not sorry—and it is important that you do. But the sins of the impenitent are not forgiven them by God “as long as they do not repent” (Small Catechism, Office of the Keys).
The Lord has also called certain men to stand in His place and declare the forgiveness of sins publicly. This is the chief responsibility of pastors. Their job is to forgive sins. They have no special power to do this because of who they are; pastors are sinners like everyone else. Their authority is given them by Jesus to speak His Word. The Word of absolution is powerful because it is from Jesus. This is why pastors preface the absolution with, “By the authority of God and of my holy office.” The forgiveness comes from God to the sinner through the Word.
It is a great comfort to know that Jesus’ absolution is available to us here and now. You may be troubled by a certain sin that you have never told anyone about. You may be filled with passions and desires that you know are against God’s Commandments. You may be tempted to look at things you know you shouldn’t, or to listen to things that attack your faith. Maybe you give the impression on the outside that everything is fine, while on the inside you are full of spiritual turmoil.
You do not need to carry these burdens. The Lord knows your struggle. He knows what you need the most. He says to you, “Take heart, My [child]; your sins are forgiven.” He can forgive your sins because on the cross He made full atonement for them, every one. The scales of justice were balanced by Jesus offering up Himself in payment for your sins.
But you may struggle to believe that even your great sins are forgiven. “How could God forgive this?!?” you wonder. You feel ashamed. You come to church, but you do not let yourself be comforted by the absolution. You go to Communion, but you feel just as troubled as before. In times like these, I encourage you to make an appointment with your pastor. One of my duties as your spiritual shepherd is to apply God’s Word to your specific situation, to your specific troubles and pain.
No one likes the thought of exposing their sins to others. But there is a certain relief in uncovering sins long hidden. You don’t need to try to keep buried anymore what your conscience keeps digging up. The way to be freed of your hidden sins and hidden hurts is through confession and absolution. If you confess your sins privately to your pastor, he is bound to keep that confession secret for the rest of your lives. He hears your confession of sin as God hears it, and your pastor never brings it up again to others just as God never brings it up again.
The healing absolution of Jesus, the declaration of the forgiveness of your sins and peace with God, is God’s powerful Healing for Hidden Hurts. Some of those hurts are self-inflicted, and some are inflicted by others. The hurts inflicted by others can cause you to be consumed by anger and even hatred, which can cause great spiritual harm. But through confession and absolution, all these things are left with Jesus at the cross. He bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4), and in place of these burdens, He gives His eternal rest and gladness.
So bring your sins before Jesus with humble hearts and believe the soul-cleansing Word which He declares to you: “Your sins are forgiven!”
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(woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794-1872)